Regarded as Germany's finest fighter of World War 1 (1914-1918), the Fokker D.VII actually had a short wartime career as a late-war development introduced in 1918. Pilots praised the aircraft's handling and ease-of-operation when compared to other types available. The aircraft went on to stock squadrons of both the German Air Service ("Luftstreitkrafte") and the Navy ("Kaiserliche Marine") to which some 1,000 aircraft were completed before the Armistice of November 1918. Production continued post-war through Fokker facilities arranged in the Netherlands and total manufacture peaked at 3,300 examples in all.
Such was the perceived lethality of this aircraft that the Armistice specifically singled out the Fokker D.VII fighter, forcing the Germans to hand over all completed forms to the Allies upon their surrender.
Design of this effective biplane fighter fell to Reinhold Platz while manufacture was handled by Fokker-Flugaeugwerke which was founded by Dutchman Antony Fokker. Fokker's company had been set up in Germany and maintained its place until 1919 when it relocated to neighboring Netherlands following the war. The D.VII was a culmination of sorts from designs Platz handled from 1916 onwards. By the end of 1917, the V11 prototype was unveiled with its (rather outmoded) Mercedes D.III series engine of 160 horsepower and it was this form that was entered in a new German competition to find a new frontline fighter. In a change from the norm, German pilots were called to test the aircraft and none other than the "Red Baron himself" - Manfred von Richthofen - flew the Fokker prototype. Unfortunately for Fokker, the Baron was not too pleased with the type and offered his critique.
With this feedback in hand, Platz returned to the drawing board to enact changes to his V11 which included a root extension at the vertical tail fin and a lengthened the fuselage to promote better handling and dive controlling. With these alterations, the V11 was retested and Richthofen offered his endorsement of the aircraft which effectively spelt the end for all of the other competing types. Fokker was now granted a production order for 400 initial aircraft based on the refined V11 prototype. Authorities assigned the formal designation of D.VII to the series and manufacture would begin immediately.
At its core, the D.VII showcased a conventional biplane arrangement consistent with the period. The pilot, engine, and wings were all situated ahead of midships and the fuselage carried a slab-sided look. The engine sat in a forward compartment with its two-bladed wooden propeller mounted low. Aft and above the engine block was the mounting for 2 x 7.92mm machine guns in fixed, forward-firing positions. These were further synchronized to fire through the spinning propeller blades at front. The pilot sat in an open-air cockpit located aft of the guns with good vision to the sides, rear, and above his aircraft. However, the long nose - capped by the machine gun installations - coupled with the upper and lower wing elements provided a decidedly obtrusive view forward and to the upper/lower sides of the aircraft - nevertheless, this was the common practice of the day. The tail unit was conventional with its single (rounded) vertical tail fin and accompanying horizontal planes. The undercarriage was of true "tail dragger" fashion featured two fixed, wheeled main legs under the forward mass of the aircraft and a landing skid under the tail. The strutted wheeled main legs allowed for rough field operations. The main wingplanes incorporated the typical biplane arrangement with their upper and lower wing section. Horizontal struts were used in a single-bay fashion and the wings were of a slightly unequal span - the larger unit wider than the lower.
The D.VII was first issued to frontline squadrons in May of 1918 - a critical junction in the war and, by this time, Manfred von Richthofen was already dead. From the outset, the nimble, fast fighters took Allied aircrews by surprise and threatened a change in air supremacy. The aircraft proved strong and agile fighters, able to best many modern opponents through a much improved design - the Sopwith Snipe and SPAD S.XIII were some of its few true aerial contenders. The D.VII lived a short service life but helped to make several aces in its time aloft - including future Nazi Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goring. In August, the aircraft was delivered to German naval units and in one engagement alone airmen managed to down nineteen enemy aircraft with no loss to their own. By this time, 565 enemy aircraft had fallen to D.VII pilots in all.
Despite the seemingly unstoppable nature of the D.VII design, it was not a design devoid of issues - some owning to design of the aircraft and others to poor manufacturing standards. The upper wing element was prone to losing its canvas skin at times and fuel tanks held the propensity to simply break away. Ammunition, particularly phosphorus-based, could ignite under the heat of the running engine. Nevertheless, the Germans were hard-pressed to change their fortunes and the new D.VII seemingly fit the bill ad fought on until the end of the war. Wartime operators beyond Germany went on to include the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire. Manufacture came from Fokker and Albatros factories during the war (AEG was slated for manufacture of the aircraft as well but ultimately did not). Interestingly, Albatros ended up producing more D.VIIs than Fokker itself while factory quality tended to be better from Albatros plants.
Other Fokker prototype developments related to the D.VII design included the V21 with its tapered wings, the V22 with its four-bladed propeller unit, the V24 powered by a Benz Bz.IVu of 240 horsepower output, and the V31 which installed a tow hook for pulling a glider. The V34 prototype installed the BMW IIIa series engine of 185 but did not see serial production. The V35 incorporated a second cockpit and underslung fuel reserve for improved ranges as well as the BMW IIIa series engine. The V36 followed suit while the V38 served as the prototype to the upcoming Fokker C.I. The C.I failed to see service in World War 1 but found takers in the post-war years from Fokker, now based in the Netherlands. Over 250 of this mark were eventually produced.
Production models were also not limited to using the Mercedes D.III engines of 160 horsepower for there were also examples fielded with the Mercedes D.IIIa engines of 175 horsepower and the BMW IIIa engine of 185 horsepower (up to 240 horsepower possible). These provided slightly different performance figures when fitted.
After the war, large stocks of the D.VII were taken on by the Allies or passed on to others. Since Germany was heavily restricted from making more war goods, Fokker relocated his works to the Netherlands and took sections of his aircraft to continue production. Its post-war reach was more wide-reaching than its wartime service for operators emerged in Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, the Soviet Union, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.